Posts Tagged ‘Vanderbilt Mansions Gilded Age’

Two Vanderbilt sisters, two eclectic Fifth Avenue mansions given as wedding gifts

May 8, 2023

For much of the Gilded Age, the spacious and tidy residential blocks on Fifth Avenue between 50th Street and Central Park South were New York City’s millionaire mile.

The members of one supremely rich and famous family in particular made their homes here: the Vanderbilts.

During the late 19th century, eight Vanderbilt-occupied mansions of varying sizes and styles lined this stretch of Fifth Avenue. For this the area earned the nickname “Vanderbilt Row”—or “Vanderbilt Alley,” as more cheeky city residents called it.

Though all were demolished by the end of the 1920s, some of these legendary houses remain well-known. There’s William H. Vanderbilt’s “Triple Palace,” a restrained brownstone single mansion and double mansion between 51st and 52nd Streets (below).

Here, this son of Commodore Vanderbilt lived with his wife, as well as his married adult daughters Emily and Margaret and their families.

Across 52nd Street was “petit chateau,” the French Renaissance spectacle built by William H.’s son William K., and his social-climbing wife, Alva. Spanning 58th to 59th Streets stood the 137-room Medieval-like mansion owned by son Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his wife, Alice.

But two other Vanderbilt mansions in between these palaces also loomed over Fifth Avenue, at the southwest corner a few doors up from St. Thomas Church. Yet these two adjoining houses, Numbers 680 and 684 Fifth Avenue (top photo), have been strangely forgotten.

Perhaps it’s because the two Vanderbilt sisters who resided here were not as socially prominent as sisters-in-law Alva and Alice. Or maybe it’s because each of these “townhouses,” as they were known, were architectural mishmashes without the handsome lines or French-inspired amazingness of the Vanderbilt dwellings surrounding them.

Florence Adele Vanderbilt Twombly (above, in an 1890 portrait by John Singer Sargent), the sixth of William H.’s nine children, resided at Number 684 with her husband, financial advisor Hamilton McKown Twombly. Eliza Osgood Vanderbilt Webb (below), the eighth child in the family, took up residence at Number 680 with her spouse, Dr. William Seward Webb.

Both mansions were built in the mid-1880s. A New York Times piece says that Eliza’s mansion was a wedding gift from her father; Florence’s neighboring mansion was as well.

Both were also designed by John Snook, the architect responsible for the Vanderbilt Triple Palace as well as Commodore Vanderbilt’s 1871 Grand Central Depot. Snook’s style for the two mansions was certainly eclectic: a little Flemish with the stepped roofs, touches of French Renaissance in the turrets, and a bit of Queen Anne thrown in with the chimneys and bays.

The exteriors of both homes were a confusing but wondrous jumble. Inside, both sisters and their families entertained and enjoyed the Gilded Age good life.

In 1892, the sisters held joint leap year dinner parties, followed by a dance in Eliza’s reception room. “The party, however, was not a large one, only about 100 invitations having been sent out,” the New York Times reported days later on January 24.

Eliza also held a cotillion at her home in 1895 for about 130 guests, again reported in the Times. In the early 1900s, she hosted small dances and dinners for her daughter Fredericka, introducing her into society.

But wealth and social standing didn’t insulate the sisters from tragedies. On New Year’s Day in 1896, Florence’s teenage daughter, Alice Twombly, died of pneumonia at her family country estate in Madison, New Jersey. The funeral was held on January 4 at the Fifth Avenue mansion, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Ten years later, Florence’s 18-year-old Harvard-bound son, Hamilton Jr., drowned in a New Hampshire lake while his parents and siblings were living in their summer home in Newport. Four years after the boy’s death, Hamilton Twombly, Sr. passed away—his death partly attributed to the devastating loss of his only son.

By now, Vanderbilt Row was changing, with commercial buildings encroaching on what had been an exclusively residential enclave. Number 680 was the first of the two neighbor mansions to go down. Put on the market in 1913, it was leased by John D. Rockefeller, whose own mansion was just up the block.

Rockefeller soon replaced the Webb house with a contemporary building (above, in 1927). Eliza and her husband moved permanently to their farm in Shelbourne, Vermont, where she passed away in 1936.

The Twombly mansion, cleaved from its once-adjoining neighbor, managed to stand until the 1920s. Rockefeller purchased that one as well, tearing it down and putting up a second modern building that perfectly matched the one next door.

Florence Twombly relocated in 1926 to a new, 70-room home at the new millionaire mile along Upper Fifth Avenue at 71st Street (above, in 1931). The last granddaughter of Commodore Vanderbilt and one of the final remaining family members who recall the Gilded Age glory days of Vanderbilt Row, she died at age 98 in 1952.

The sisters’ mansions, like all the others from Vanderbilt Row, are merely ghosts in the contemporary city.

[Top image: Wikipedia; second image: NYPL Digital Collection; third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: MCNY,; fifth image: NYPL Digital Collection; sixth image: MCNY, X2010.7.2.14051]